Someone was asking me the other day how I choose the authors for my ‘Savidge Reads Grills…’ and my response is that because this is a blog that’s about my personal reading life I only want the authors whose books have meant a lot to me in some way to be those that I grill. ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen was a book I read last year and raved about. I thought it was incredible and wanted everyone I knew to read it, its one of those books you by for everyone you know and then realise you might have bought someone it twice. ‘Purge’ is still a book that I think about a lot, it’s never quite let me go, so naturally I wanted to Grill the mind that created it. As luck would have it I managed to catch up with its author over a virtual coffee in an airport…
Picture by Toni Härkönen
Can you explain the story of ‘Purge’ in a single sentence without giving anything too much away?
Not really, sorry 🙂 What is most important theme in the book depends on the reader and their personal background… For some it’s a book about betrayal or obsession, for some about the envy between sisters, for others it’s a book about repression in general or about the history of Estonia. Or history of any occupied country.
How did the story come about? Was it a series of subjects you had always wanted to write about? Where did you create Aliide and Zara from or did they just create themselves?
Well there were several different reasons on the background. I wanted to write about passive resistance by women – as a child I had heard lots of legends about forest brothers, the members of the resistance movement in occupied Estonia, but they wouldn’t have managed without the help of women and children and I wanted to write about what it meant for women and children, the helping.
Then there was another story in the family, about a girl who was taken to be questioned and she did came back home and looked like she was physically ok, but she never spoke since. So I started to thinking, what does it take to make someone that silent? I had just read books by Slavenca Drakulic, a Croation author I value highly – she has written about the Balkan war and it was shocking and appalling to realize there were rape concentration camps practically in the middle of Europe in 90s. It’s something that doesn´t really fit with the image we have about modern Europe. But it did happen. So how can we be sure it won´t happen again? Rape wasn´t defined as a war crime until lately (by European Union). So there´s lots of work to be done.
And another point: Soviet narrative has been defining the Eastern European countries for decades – also in the West. So there are plenty of Eastern European stories and voices who deserve to have their own voice.
‘Purge’ is a book that has really haunted me ever since I read it, how did you work out how to put the reader through all that without making it clichéd or emotionally manipulative?
Well this is quite difficult question – I just try to write as well as possible 🙂
I also think its one of those rare books that you live through with the characters; you really experience it which can be quite hard to read. How hard was it to write a book that so emotive and harrowing, how did you stop yourself from becoming an emotional wreck?
Writing is easy, always 🙂 I’m afraid it would be more difficult for me not to write.
‘Purge’ has been turned into a play in America, how did that come about and how involved were you? Will it be coming to the UK? Are there plans for a film?
Purge is just about to have its premier in Washington DC; the first production in US was in New York City. I haven’t yet heard about confirmed productions in UK, but hopefully the play will be staged in UK as well. The rights for the film have been sold, but I don’t know when the film is coming out.
I’m pretty busy with all the translations coming out all over the world and that means lots of travelling as well so I don’t have really time to get involved with the stage productions as well. I trust the professionals know what to do 🙂
The success of ‘Purge’ has been phenomenal; you’ve won awards and been read by hundreds and thousands of people. Does that put pressure on you for the next book, or are you just enjoying this all at the moment and not thinking down that route?
Well I’m afraid I don’t really have to think about this success, there’s so much work to do and so many productions on the way.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?
I started writing when I learned to write and that was at the age of six.
Which books and authors inspired you?
Marguerite Duras, Anna Ahmatova, Sylvia Plath, Arto Salminen, Asko Sahlberg, the Brontë-sisters, Aleksandr Solzenitsyn. As a child I really loved adventures of Angelique, by Serge Anne Golon.
Are there any Finnish authors that you really wish were translated into English but haven’t been yet?
Plenty! Let’s say Arto Salminen and Asko Sahlberg. Rosa Liksom and Aino Kallas are Finnish authors I rate but there are translations in English available.
Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?
Not really. My daily routine is so irregular nowadays and has been since I published my first novel. I can write everywhere, but prefer solitude, and let’s say it’s always good to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette.
How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?
Well book blogging is not too active in Finland, but it’s very important for example in Lithuania where people don’t trust media (too much corruption), but they trust bloggers 🙂 And I guess the influence of book blogging is especially essential in the countries with limited freedom of speech and corrupted media.
In Finland book bloggers can push the attention to books that are ‘old’ or marginal and besides it diminishes the influence of big papers, or their critics, and that is a good thing. New, fresh voices are always a good thing. However due to my profession I make my personal reading list on the basis of the catalogues publishers are sending me 🙂 And also on the basis of my work in process.
You have two other novels prior to ‘Purge’ please say these are soon to be translated into English?
Depends on the publisher 🙂
Which contemporary authors do you rate at the moment?
Oh, there are plenty of them! So I cannot pick up just one. But my favourites from the past few years are books by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Waters and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.
Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?
My all time favourites are for example Nightwood by Djuna Barnes and L´Amant by Marguerite Duras. And very important is also The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Soltzenitsyn. I just bought the Finnish rights for the book (for my company) and I’m publishing it in Finland 2012-2013. It will be the first time when the book will be completely published in Finland – for example the first volume was published in Finnish in 70s, but in Sweden… Finnish publishers didn’t want to risk their business with Soviets so they didn’t dare to take the book.
What is next for Sofi Oksanen?
The new novel coming out in Finland 2012 fall. It’s the third part of the Quartet, 4-novel serious about separation of the Europe and its consequences. And this fall there’s also coming out a book including my lyrics. And plenty of translations.
A big thank you to Sofi for taking time out to be grilled, you can find her website here. You can also win a copy of ‘Purge’ in the post below.