“Murder. Corruption. Dark secrets. A titanic wave of refugees. Can Anna solve a terrifying case that’s become personal?
Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?”
I am absolutely thrilled to welcome you to my weekend long stop on Orenda Books’ Finnish Invasion blog tour. I am delighted to welcome Kati Hiekkapelto, author of The Exiled to damppebbles today with a fabulous Q&A. Tomorrow I have fellow Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen joining me on the blog with a brilliant guest post. So pop back tomorrow for the Finnish Invasion blog tour part two! Without further ado, on with the questions…
The Exiled sees Anna return home to Serbia, where she finds that the people there aren’t quite as she remembered, and she’s often shocked by the behaviour of the locals to ‘outsiders’. Was that your experience?
Serbia is very multicultural place and they still have their own war times fresh in their memory, so many people are actually very tolerant and open to ‘outsiders’. In fact, Hungary behaved much worse during last year’s refugee crisis than Serbia. Racism and xenophobia are much more deeper in every-day politics in Hungary. But of course there are problems in Serbia, too. There are politicians, parties and also common individuals who don’t accept immigrants or Romanys – the latter in particular are very badly treated. This concerns the whole of Eastern Europe and unfortunately the whole world. My own experiences in Serbia were only good. I come from ‘West’ and therefore I was something rather to admire to than dislike. Of course I hope that everyone would be liked just because he or she is a good person, not because of the origins. I never understood why on earth would it matter where I happened to be born or where my parents were born. Our nationality in birth is something we really cannot change.
And paradoxically, across the first two books (The Hummingbird and The Defenceless), Anna is an outsider in Finland, yet when she returns home to Serbia in this book, she feels somewhat the same – the people and their treatment of others alien to her – and she discovers a shocking secret that makes her question everything. What was your message here?
I don’t want to deliver any messages. I am just a storyteller. Although, in my experience, many immigrants share the feeling of being an outsider in both their old and new homelands. Research into the immigrant experience also confirm this. So, Anna’s feelings have a big basis in reality, however, not every immigrant would feel the same.
How Anna could feel home in Serbia, when she fled there as a small child? How could she feel home in Finland, where she don’t have her roots and family and can’t really use her mother tongue. These are fundamental questions in Anna’s fragile identity and the worst thing is that she is incapable of talking about them. She believes that opening her inner self to someone is worthless mumbo jumbo and psychology is nothing but bullshit, but I think she doesn’t have words for the feelings she experiences and therefore she overlooks (or suppresses) the whole thing. This is one of the tragedies of losing your mother tongue. Describing your emotions is very deeply rooted in your mother tongue and if you don’t have opportunity to use it often or it doesn’t develop enough (for example, moving to an other country as a child), you can experience such problems and not even be aware of it. I think to understand Anna, we need to try to understand the fundamental, essential combination of language and identity.
Family secrets are a theme that runs throughout the book. What was your inspiration for this thread of the story?
In The Hummingbird I wrote one sentence in which Anna told her new colleagues that her police-officer father died in the line of duty. I did not know then what had happened, to be honest; in fact, I did not think about it at all, but I knew immediately that I want to find it out. The Exiled was kind of born in that moment, years before I actually wrote it.
Can you tell us a secret of your own?
No. It would not be a secret anymore. Ha ha! (Good answer, Kati!)
You have been shortlisted for or won most of the big Scandinavian fiction awards (The Glass Key, the Petrona Award, the Ice Pick, Finnish Crime Novel of the Year, Dead Good Reads Most Captivating Crime in Translation …). When you started writing, did you ever expect this?
OMG, no! I still don’t believe this! When I wrote The Hummingbird, I had only one goal: to finish a whole novel. When it was done I almost deleted it, because it felt so shit. But fortunately I sent it to couple of publishing houses in Finland and amazingly Otava picked it up very quickly. Everything has been a huge surprise to me. Huge, huge surprise. I still think sometimes that this is just a gigantic joke and one day everybody is going to laugh at me and say: Ha! We got you! Your books are bad as you thought, you fool!
It is crazy how artists can be unsure about their work! I’ve talked with many writers and painters and composers and almost all of them report feeling the same way. It is horrible to struggle with feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. I could never expect anything ‘glorious’ from outside, I could not write thinking: this is so brilliant, it’s going to be a huge success. Of course I have moments when text is rolling and it looks good even to my own eyes. Thank God for those moments, or I could not bear to be in this profession without them. And I am ambitious, too. I want to achieve a lot, not because achieving it would be something interesting or desirable, but because I want to become a bloody good writer. I want to learn and get better all the time.
Your writing is evocative and beautiful – very literary. Did you find it difficult to marry this with a page-turning, gripping plot?
It is my style, and it comes quite naturally to me, without any particular effort. Writing in the whole is difficult, though. Plot, characters, narrative, setting, themes, language, rhythm of words and sentences, it all has to be as perfect as possible. That is the reason I experience so much pain when I write. It is never good enough! It is so hard to make all those elements work together as complete, readable, enjoyable and thought-provoking prose. And yet it is so fun, interesting and exciting. I love writing! (And hate too!)
Equally, Kati, you are a political writer – exposing wrongs in society and pointing the finger at wrongdoers. You root for the little people, the underdogs. And yet, as above, at no point is the tension lost, or is the story compromised. How do you go about writing enthralling books while giving a voice to others?
I think this is another thing that comes naturally. I’ve always been on the side of the poor and discriminated. I come from working-class family where social awareness and equality was always something considered to be self-evident. My parents were not activists or anything like that; they are very ordinary people, but in my home all forms of bullying or underrating others was despised. I became a punk when I was young and I still am. Punk shaped my identity very much. I hope I will never be too old to abandon my ideology, my anger at the establishment and my support for the oppressed. However, in my writing I try to avoid preaching. No one likes to be taught or pushed in a certain direction. I hate preaching! I tell stories that definitely have a certain level of social consciousness. It is my style and I also like to read this type of book myself. But conclusions I leave to the reader.
In your personal life, you’ve been very involved in helping writers and artists in danger. Can you tell us a bit about this?
At the moment the project is ‘in ice’ because we don’t have money nor anyone to do it full time. We got a grant for a year (last year) and we had one ‘customer’ from Iraq on our island Hailuoto. There are so-called Safe Haven cities in every Nordic country except Finland (I think Helsinki is soon going to be one, at least there are active people working towards this) and all over the world, too. They offer a period of asylum for artists in danger. I had a dream of creating such a residency to Hailuoto. With the grant we hired one person to do all the paperwork, etc., for the project, but unfortunately he did not do very good job. But we got great experience, good contacts and lots of knowledge. I really hope one day we can continue the project. There are so many writers and other artists who are persecuted for their work and that is a shame.
Are you affected by the cold, dark winters in your home village? Tell us a little about what it’s like to live in 24-hour darkness, on an island, during a Finnish winter.
I am very affected indeed. I am writing this in Tenerife. I escaped the darkness and love the sunshine here. Darkness can be very depressing. The older I get the harder it feels. Luckily my work allows me to go out during the hours of grey light we have around midday. When I was working in school it was much more difficult during the ‘kaamos’ (the period when the sun doesn’t rise in winter). And luckily I live 230 km south of the Arctic Circle, so it is possible to see a blink of sun sometimes. I would say it is 20-hour darkness and couple of hours of greyness. Beyond the circle you can not see light at all for months. And then in summer we have nothing but light. I can go out and read a book in the middle of a night. It is great!
There is much beauty in darkness ,too. It feels cosy and safe, like a blanket. And it is easier to bear in the countryside, rathe than in cities, I think. You can see the light of stars and snow better without artificial illumination. The Milky Way is fully visible from my yard and Aurora Borealis dance above my house very often. I don’t mind cold. It is only question of dressing properly. Finnish houses are well isolated and warm. Well, my house is almost 200 years old and not perhaps so warm… Winter means wood chopping and heating to me. And cross-country skiing. It is something I’m used to, nothing special or exotic really. But I think I will come back to Tenerife next winter too…
What’s next for Anna Fekete?
I’m writing it here. She is back in Finland, that much I can reveal. I don’t feel comfortable speaking about work that is not done yet.
Is this a series that you think you can sustain indefinitely, or will you need to take a break to write a standalone or something different? Do you have any ideas for that ‘something different’?
I could write short stories in the ‘Finnish Weird’ genre. Actually, I already have. I also write lyrics for my band, and columns for a couple of newspapers. I have a forever-project called a theater piece. But as long as I feel that I have something to say through Anna’s character and I don’t get bored with her, this series will be my main work.
You’ve travelled to the UK three or four times a year since the publication of The Hummingbird. Is the culture what you imagined it would be and are you surprised by the huge enthusiasm for your books here and around the world?
Do you mean British culture in general or culture among crime fiction scene? Well, it does not matter, because I did not imagine either of them. And yes, as I mentioned earlier, I am totally surprised. One of the greatest things I’ve discovered is that crime writers in UK are like one big, happy family, a wonderful community of amazing people. I have felt very welcome and part of the gang from the beginning. It is fantastic! This, of course, applies to crime writers from all around the globe, but since I have met most of them in UK, I count them as part of the UK gang. I have travelled to many other countries, too, since The Hummingbird. At the moment I have 12 foreign translations. Unless I wake up tomorrow and get a call from my agent to say: we were all just kidding…
What are you reading now, and what has been your best ‘crime’ read of the year?
Luis Ruffato’s There Were Many Horses. The best crime was re-reading The Red Dragon. It was even better than the first time. I often read two or three books at a time, and my third one is Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain.
Thank you so much for answering these questions for us, Kati. My review of The Exiled will be coming to damppebbles soon.
The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto was published in the UK by Orenda Books on 10th October
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Kati Hiekkapelto is a bestselling author, punk singer, performance artist and special-needs teacher. She lives on an old farm on the island of Hailuoto in Northern Finland with her children and sizable menagerie. Hiekkapelto has taught immigrants and lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia, which inspired her to write her highly regarded debut crime novel, The Hummingbird.