Viivi Hyvonen’s latest novel, the title of which translates as “The Monkey and the New Moon,” has gotten a lot of critical praise in the author’s native Finland. It was also talked up to us during our recent trip to Finland by, among others, Jukka Halme, who called it an excellent example of New Weird fiction. I’ve now read the 18,000 words of the novel that exist in an English translation, and I have to say I find the story fascinating. It’s energetic, intelligent, and at times darkly funny. What’s the novel about? I’ll let Hyvonen describe it, to kick off a short interview with her…
In the permanently quarantined city of Dystopolis between an unnavigable, poisonous ocean and an impassable dump inhabited by frenzied monkeys, a suspiciously monkey-like baby boy is found on a doorstep and adopted by a former jazz singer, who names him Hanuman after a monkey god. Confined to her attic apartment during the days, in the nights he roams the rooftops, while down on the streets tango and jazz gangs rule and listening to the wrong kind of music can get you killed. After a restless and violent youth in a city run by organized crime and a foreign police force, Hanuman manages to carve himself a niche and make a living as a private detective, until one day he receives three interconnected commissions. One is from three trench-coated strangers who claim to come from the outside, one from a hunted scientist who claims to have returned from the outside, and one from a tango singer called Luna who bears a disturbing resemblance to Hanuman’s now deceased grandmother. While Dystopolis is on the verge of a civil war as the children of several criminal leaders are found murdered, Hanuman sets out to solve some mysteries of his own in addition to those of his commissioners, and in so doing joins a dangerous game where his own life and Luna’s are not the highest stakes.
You’ve translated part of your latest novel into English. What was that process like? Did the book seem to change as a result?
The process was painstaking at best. I’ve read mostly in English since my early teens but haven’t actively used the language since high school. Even though I have a reasonably large passive vocabulary, it can get rather frustrating when I’m absolutely positive there’s a certain word or expression that I’m looking for but can’t find it in a dictionary. I’ve always gotten there in the end, though. I don’t think the book changed as a result, or at least hope it didn’t. One of the things about translating into or writing in a language other than your native one is that you can’t trust your sense of style entirely. I hate that.
What has the reader response been like to your most recent novel? How has it affected how you view your book?
This question in actually related to the previous one, because I’ve got a lot of positive feedback on my Finnish. Once a professional linguist complemented me and asked if I put a lot of effort into the language. I do, and am flattered that someone takes notice—and a little humiliated as I find my English skills lacking. Another response I’ve heard repeatedly is that people have read or intend to read it a second time, which is what I do if I truly love a book (for me the best of books are those that both withstand and demand several reads). All in all, the response has been very rewarding, since I had a hard time getting the novel published in the first place and, I have to admit, almost lost faith at times.
Who are your main influences?
Concerning my most recent novel, the two books I was most influence by were probably Dracula by Bram Stoker and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. While still in high school, I had seen the film Dracula by Fancis Ford Coppola and been very impressed. When I went on to read the book, though, I was surprised to discover it to be an epistolary novel. The form intrigued me and I decided that I wanted to write a book consisting of diary entries, letters and so forth—and make it absorbing. Hoeg’s book, on the other hand, is a thriller and very exiting even though it isn’t chronological, another structural aspect I wanted to try out.
I was also influenced by several movies with artificial realities that their inhabitants are unaware of: Matrix (world as a computer program), Dark City (world as an alien experiment) and Truman Show (world as a TV-series). I realized this hadn’t been done with books, i.e. a world, or in my case a city, as a milieu for literature. As a matter of fact, the world of my novel could be seen as a landscape of my own mind, as it contains allusions to a number of things that were important to me while growing up: classical mythology, such children’s classics as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, graphic novels like Corto Maltese etc.
Generally speaking, I’ve been most influenced by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Holdstock, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
What issue or issues are you grappling with right now as a writer, either about craft or being a writer, or anything else?
Because I started out so young, I effectively built my identity around writing—not surprisingly, themes of identity are central in all my work. As writing was something everyone has expected me to do with my life, I’ve needed to take distance from it at various points. The first one must have been when I realized Finnish is a language with only 5 million speakers (and potential readers) and in Finland speculative fiction is as marginal a genre as anywhere else. As it didn’t seem feasible for me to make a living out of writing what and how I wanted to, I decided I needed a day job where I wouldn’t have to worry too much about money or employment and might be able to work part time. Thus I went to study medicine and wrote my most recent novel over the time of several years—one of the issues I’m grappling right now is trying to be creative on a regular basis instead of whenever I feel like it, as I am working as a doctor only three days a week in order be able to write more.
When I started I was too young to be interested in authors instead of just books. (I was twelve when I began my first novel, fourteen when it was released.) For me writing didn’t use to be a social hobby but originally a way to channel ideas and emotions I found difficult to otherwise express. At times the attention I get for my writing can be confusing for me, and I’m still surprised whenever I get together with other authors, that, hey, there’s actually other people doing this, too. A certain yearning for attention and approval is typical of me but not a characteristic that I’m particularly proud of, so over the years I’ve tended to question my own motives to write. I’ve come to understand, however, that even though the attention part isn’t something I really need, I do need to write in order to thrive, and if somebody else is getting something out of it, I’m glad. This might seem like a rather painstaking way to decide to be a writer after all, but that’s the way my mind works: the pressure needs to build up and the discomfort grows until I finally reach a decision–and commit myself to it